If you want a living, breathing city, go to Manhattan. If you want to see familiar places trashed by war, weather, and the apocalypse, play a video game. Spec Ops: The Line imagines a Dubai ravaged by a sandstorm. Survivors cling to life in ruined resorts and shopping malls half buried by the encroaching desert. The vistas are frequently striking, especially the views of the wreckage from the rooftops of sand-swept skyscrapers. Spec Ops: The Line is a palm tree and infinity pool vision of the apocalypse, where an oasis of opulence and excess is buried by nature and then further debased by man.
And since this is a video game, there’s got to be a reason to kill people in this unique place. This Gears of War-style shooter takes inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. An army Colonel tasked with leading the evacuation of the doomed megalopolis has dropped of the radar. As Captain Martin Walker, voiced by the unavoidable Nolan North, you lead a squad of soldiers looking for answers.
Sadly, both the questions and answers in Spec Ops: The Line are disappointing and dumb. Much blame goes to the long, dark shadow cast over this game by protest cinema of the ’70s. It would be silly (and masochistic) to expect an antiwar song by Skrillex on the soundtrack for a game like this. But when “Nowhere To Run To” by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas plays during a particularly hairy firefight, it’s clear that Spec Ops: The Line is more indebted to baby boomer nostalgia than the plight of Generation Kill.
One reason to admire Spec Ops: The Line is that it doesn’t flinch from the horror. The ruins of Dubai are adorned with corpses hanging by their necks—a remedial but effective way of showing that in this place, the conch shell has shattered. And players are frequently confronted with dried, twisted corpses whose lips are stretched back in gruesome, toothy grins. This is a far cry from the silly rag-doll flops, orgasmic explosions of guts, or slowly fading pools of blood that often serve as the consequence of video game death.
Soldiers moan pitifully when downed by gunfire, adding a hair more consequence to the act of gunning down a human being. Most of that potency is lost, though, when you’re invited to brutally execute the wounded with a single button press. Still, there’s more honesty about the costs of war here than in the entire Call Of Duty series. Particularly striking are moments that grapple with the use of white phosphorus—an incendiary weapon that was used by both Saddam Hussein and the U.S. In Iraq. There’s still a bit of cake eating-and-having when the white fire rains down from the sky, igniting soldiers like candles who evaporate into lovely swirls of spark, smoke, and ash. The scene is both harrowing and a little cool. If that dichotomy is an indictment of war games and the people who play them, the statement is surely accidental.
Walker’s two allies are there to add context if the player gets too detached from the ugliness. Much of the game’s non-violent conflict comes from the constant (and sensible) questioning of the player’s increasingly dubious actions. Otherwise, the two soldiers are extensions of Walker’s will. There’s no way to control where those wingmen go, but it is possible to issue kill orders, which is a useful way to multitask the busywork of killing enemies.
Fights hew closely to the duck-and-cover template. Huddling behind barriers is mandatory—perhaps more here than in other clones. The aftereffects of the sandstorm add a new but underused wrinkle: Shoot certain windows and vents, and the enemy will be drowned in sand. Otherwise, the necessities of The Line’s shopworn genre serve mostly to undermine its own ambitions. When knife-wielding, mustachioed bad guys turn up, they feel more like generic enemy types delivering “variety” to the gunfight than confused or brainwashed soldiers fighting on a madman’s mission. It might be impossible to keep such characters from being reduced to fodder, but play and plot seem particularly distant in these instances. They’re even farther afield in the game’s multiplayer, which pares back commentary and color to the point of non-existence.
As a requiem for the modern military action game—a body overdue for revision and retrospect—Spec Ops: The Line is a stinging belly flop. Striking visions of the world’s end aren’t in short supply at this point. But a new, thought-provoking reason to explore the ruins of civilization remains one of our holy grails. The setting here is right and the scenario feels promising at first, but in the end, the game feels like another arms-length morality play with no heart. If you’re going to plunge fearlessly into the darkness like this, you’ve got to have one.